NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he "fundamentally disagrees" with former league boss Paul Tagliabue's decision not to discipline players in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
Speaking Wednesday after an owners meeting in the Dallas area, Goodell said he respected his predecessor's decision, and believed it backed up the commissioner's conclusion that the Saints ran a bounty program for three years and covered it up.
But Goodell took issue with Tagliabue vacating the yearlong suspension of linebacker Jonathan Vilma and shorter bans for three other current and former Saints players. In an NFL appeal ruling issued Tuesday, the former commissioner placed much of the blame with the Saints' coaches and front office.
"I fundamentally disagree that this is something that lies just with coaches and management," Goodell said. "I do think their leadership position needs to be considered, but I also believe these players were in leadership positions, also."
Like Vilma, Saints coach Sean Payton received a yearlong suspension. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, and assistant Joe Vitt, who is now the interim head coach, was banned for six games. General manager Mickey Loomis got an eight-game suspension.
"My personal view is I hold everyone responsible," Goodell said. "Player health and safety is an important issue in this league. We're all going to have to contribute to that, whether you're a commissioner, whether you're a coach, whether you're a player, and we all have to be held accountable for it."
The 22-page ruling allowed both sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first revealed the Saints' bounty scandal to shocked fans, describing a performance pool operated by Williams that, among other things, rewarded hits that injured opponents.
"Frankly, I think everybody's a winner to get this issue behind us," Jacksonville owner Shahid Kahn said.
On Wednesday, Vilma asked a federal judge to allow him to move forward with a defamation lawsuit against Goodell in U.S. District Court in Louisiana. Vilma's lawyers filed a motion to drop his case against the NFL's disciplinary process now that his suspension has been lifted.
Tagliabue didn't find the players completely without fault, though. He said Vilma and defensive end Will Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays — including hard tackles — while defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, following coaches' orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010.
Vilma and Smith, suspended four games, have been playing for the Saints while the appeals were pending. Hargrove is not with a team. Tagliabue cleared linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns but on injured reserve, of conduct detrimental to the league.
"It was a very thoughtful decision, but again my one disappointment is at some point players have to be held accountable, particularly when you find that they did participate in this scheme," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said.
Tagliabue criticized Saints coaches and the organization by saying they fostered bad behavior and tried to impede the investigation into what the NFL said was a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011, with thousands of dollars in payouts.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees blasted Goodell and the league office Wednesday.
"What I would like to see is a level of accountability on the part of the NFL and Commissioner Goodell in regards to mishandling of this entire situation," Brees said. "We as players hold ourselves and are held to a very strict code of conduct both on and off the field. We have to be accountable to that, as it should be, and I feel like they should be held to the same standards.
"If someone would just come out in the league office and admit, 'You know what? We could have handled this situation better,' it would go such a long way with both players and fans. People would really come around to realize what this thing was all about because right now the league office and Commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players."
Goodell rejected Brees' plea to acknowledge that he mishandled the investigation.
"Commissioner Tagliabue said there's no one here that should feel good about their role in this with respect to the Saints," Goodell said. "I think to have a bounty program where you're targeting players for injury is completely unacceptable in the NFL, and it's clear that occurred for three years despite all the denials."
NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash said Tagliabue's ruling answered the criticism that he would favor the league because he used to run it.
"I think he did exactly what he was charged to do, which was to be independent and to have full authority," Pash said.
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